Authors: Darrin M. McMahon
MORE ADVANCE PRAISE FOR
“As Darrin McMahon shows, the genius is the god among men—providing one of the last connections to the transcendent that our common secular culture retains, and setting up a struggle between our desire for exceptional beings and our leveling egalitarianism. In its absorbing and remarkable way,
educates and entertains, vindicating the importance of grand history told over the long term.”—S
, Columbia University, author of
The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
“It is rare to find an historian who writes in a style both so sure-footed and so light, and with such joy in the telling of a tale. In his engaging new book Darrin McMahon takes us on an intellectual adventure, tracing the transformation of the idea of genius as it shed its sacred garments to become the common property of our own democratic age. Ranging with ease across history—from the poets of Romanticism to the tyrants of the twentieth-century, from Einstein to the ‘IQ Test,’ and from Benjamin Franklin to the ‘wiz-kid’ inventors of Silicon Valley—McMahon invites us to consider a central paradox of our time: If anyone can be a genius, then perhaps no one is.”—P
, Amabel B. James Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of
Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos
DARRIN M. MCMAHON
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
Copyright © 2013 by Darrin M. McMahon
Published by Basic Books,
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Designed by Cynthia Young
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McMahon, Darrin M.
Divine fury : a history of genius / Darrin M. McMahon.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-465-06991-0 (e-book)
1. Gifted persons—History. 2. Gifted persons—Biography. 3. Intellectual life—History. I. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Julien and Madeleine, who have given me gifts, born
made. May I offer them many in return.
HE GENIUS OF HUMANITY
is the right point of view of history. The qualities abide; the men who exhibit them have now more, now less, and pass away. . . . Once you saw phoenixes: they are gone; the world is not therefore disenchanted. The vessels on which you read sacred emblems turn out to be common pottery; but the sense of the pictures is sacred, and you may still read them transferred to the walls of the world. . . . Once they were angels of knowledge and their figures touched the sky. Then we drew near, saw their means, culture and limits; and they yielded their place to other geniuses.
Uses of Great Men
MONG MODERN CIVILIZED
beings a reverence for genius has become a substitute for the lost dogmatic religions of the past.
The Problem of Genius
OW THE WORD
“genius,” though in some sense extravagant, nonetheless has a noble, harmonious, and humanely healthy character and ring. . . . And yet it cannot be, nor has it ever been denied that the demonic and irrational have a disquieting share in that radiant sphere, that there is always a faint, sinister connection between it and the nether world, and for that very reason those reassuring epithets I sought to attribute to genius—“noble,” “humanely healthy,” and “harmonious”—do not quite fit, not even when . . . it is a matter of a pure and authentic genius, bestowed or perhaps inflicted by God. . . .
AY THE WORD OUT LOUD
. Even today, more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, it continues to resonate with power and allure. The power to create. The power to divine the secrets of the universe. The power to destroy. With its hints of madness and eccentricity, sexual prowess and protean possibility, genius remains a mysterious force, bestowing on those who would assume it superhuman abilities and godlike powers. Genius, conferring privileged access to the hidden workings of the world. Genius, binding us still to the last vestiges of the divine.
Such lofty claims may seem excessive in an age when football coaches and rock stars are frequently described as “geniuses.” The luster of the word—once reserved for a pantheon of eminence, the truly highest of the high—has no doubt faded over time, the result of inflated claims and general overuse. The title of a BBC television documentary on the life of the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman sums up the situation: “No Ordinary Genius.” There was a time when such a title would have been redundant. That time is no more.
Genius: we are obsessed with the word, with the idea, and with the people on whom it is bestowed. We might say that we are obsessed with ourselves, for seemingly all can be geniuses now, or at least learn to “think like a genius,” as the cover of a recent
Scientific American Mind
proclaims, if only we “discover” our genius within. No shortage of titles promises to help us do just that, while a thriving industry of educational products tempts well-meaning parents with the prospect of raising Baby Mozarts™ and Baby Einsteins™, liberally dispensing advice on how to cultivate the gifted. Flipping through the pages of such ephemera, the reader may find it difficult to detect the aura of anything sacred. And yet that aura is still there, barely detectable, however faintly it glows.
Consider the example of Einstein, the quintessential modern genius. As the author of a popular children’s book rightly explains, “Einstein” is no longer just the last name of a gifted scientist. “It has become a common noun. ‘Einstein’ means genius.” Dozens of biographies link the two words in their titles, and images of the man—at the blackboard, on a bicycle, with his wild hair and protruding tongue—spell out genius by themselves. Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which owns the copyright for the use of Einstein’s image, generates millions of dollars a year in royalties paid by the manufacturers of an impressive array of T-shirts, postcards, and other schlock bearing the master’s likeness.
What exactly do we see in these images? What do we see in genius? On one level, the answer is straightforward. For Einstein’s mass-produced image is like that of any other icon of modern celebrity or fame. Whereas a silkscreen of Marilyn signifies tragic beauty in a flash, and the silhouette of Che Guevara conveys romantic revolution, the image of Einstein bespeaks brilliance in the blink of an eye. It triggers other associations, too. If the core of Einstein’s genius was creative intelligence, we also associate him with a certain playful eccentricity, the “carefree manner of a child,” as a leading psychologist describes it, allegedly a common characteristic of truly gifted minds. There is Einstein’s absentmindedness—forgetting to eat while working on a complex problem, or to put his socks on before his shoes—and his famous slovenliness of manner and dress. There are his diversions—playing Mozart on the violin, sailing in his little boats, or chasing after women who were not his wives. There are his emotional difficulties with loved ones and family, his introspection, his capacity for long and sustained toil, his stubbornness, his rebelliousness, his “mystical, intuitive” approach to problem solving. But finally, and most revealingly where genius is concerned, there is Einstein’s role as a protector and “saint” (a label he resisted, but came to accept), the possessor of ultimate knowledge and seeker of transcendent truths, who warned the free world of the apocalyptic potential of nuclear fission and then helped to harness its destructive force. Or so the legend goes. A 1946 story in
magazine captured this image well, featuring Einstein the “Cosmoclast” on the cover before a mushroom cloud bearing the equation E = mc
. “Through the incomparable blast and flame” following the fatal release of the first atomic bomb, the article declares, was “dimly discernible, . . . the features of a shy, almost saintly, childlike little man with the soft brown eyes, . . . Professor Albert Einstein.”